Luminaries Train Young Women to Lead the Way
Bay Area BusinessWoman, May, 2005

By Sara J. Wolcott

“What are your biggest dreams?” Wende Jager-Hyman, executive director of the Woodhull Institute, asked the eight young women seated before her during a recent weekend retreat in Petaluma. The room grew quiet as the women let themselves think of those dreams they rarely tell others, the really big ones they whisper into the dark, like prayers.

“Now make them bigger.” The young women paused, pensive. How could they make their dreams bigger? So often it is hard to just dream. Rarely have they been asked to dream “bigger.”

“Now, what do you need to make those dreams come true?” Jager-Hyman challenged. “Ask for those things.”

Ten years ago, prominent feminist writer Naomi Wolf, best known for her best-selling books, The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities, and Margot Magowan, former KGO radio producer, started dreaming about a community where young women between the ages of 21 and 35 could develop the self-confidence, skills, networks, and awareness necessary to become ethical leaders. From their partnership came the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, which touts itself as the only single entity devoted to training women to assume ethical leadership roles.

“Our society says it’s cute to be ineffectual,” Wolf comments. “We won’t tolerate that at the Woodhull Institute. We expect women to feel fear and anxiety, and talk about it — and then get over it. What’s fascinating is that a lot of graduates say that the best thing about their Woodhull experience is that we have higher expectations of them than the real world does. They don’t want to go back to those low expectations.”

Sky-High Expectations

Wolf and Magowan also had high expectations for the Institute when they founded it in 1997. “It was very important to Naomi not to have just another women’s group in a basement with Styrofoam cups,” Magowan remembers with a chuckle. Or as Woodhull’s program director, Tara Bracco, put it, “We at Woodhull believe that women need comfortable chairs, good wine, good food, and lots of chocolate.”

But their recognition of the importance of the physical went beyond bodily pleasures. Magowan asserted, “We wanted land. We are capitalists, and we have no problems making money. In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t really get that. They said that we were putting the cart before the horse, but we felt strongly that we needed to have land.” And land they got: They currently have about a hundred acres and a beautiful Victorian mansion known as the Woodhull House in northern New York State.

As Bracco said, “The founders realized that Virginia Woolf was right: A woman needs a room of her own. But it is not enough just to have a room in the city; you need the air, the space to stretch your wings and learn how to fly. You need a place to be safe.”

Since its founding, more than 1,000 women have gone through Woodhull’s intensive retreats, most of them in New York. The participants, heralding from all across the country and every kind of background possible, experience several days of introspection, role playing, financial calculations, and meditative practices, taking modules such as financial literacy and negotiation devised by national women experts. The public-speaking module, for example, was created jointly with an advisor to former presidential candidate John Kerry.

At the end of the weekend, the women become “Woodhull alumni” and have the right to come to the Woodhull House in New York whenever they want, for as long as they need, to work on a project that is important to them. For free.

“This is your home now,” Bracco told the group that recently gathered for a retreat in Petaluma, pointing to a photo of the sprawling New York center. She was met with stares of amazement. Even if you live in California, the knowledge that somewhere, someone cares enough about you and the work you are doing to give you a home — on 100 acres of wooded land no less — where you can work on your projects feels like nothing short of a miracle.

Support Extends Beyond the Weekend

Woodhull’s alumni system rivals many colleges’, not so much in numbers but in effectiveness. Woodhull alumni do not seem to hesitate to help one another. Lisa Hucks, a local Woodhull alumni who currently works at the San Francisco Chronicle and is starting her own magazine, says, “The experience was so intense that I know I can call up any of the women I met through it whenever I need to for just about anything, even though we haven’t kept in close contact.”

The promise that the participants receive: If you need help, ask for it. We are here to help you.

Stand Tall, Speak Truth

Woodhull Institute was named after Virginia Woodhull, the first woman to enter the stock market and to run for president. Her words are found throughout the Institute’s materials: “Have the courage of your convictions; don’t mind what the world says; don’t try to be popular — do your duty.”

“It is remarkably difficult to have the courage of your convictions,” Jager-Hyman says, sighing. “Over and over, I see women who do not recognize their own self-worth.”

Bracco helps explain why women have such a hard time owning their accomplishments: “It is hard for people to own their own power when they are not in a crisis situation. People often say [‘Well, I did this really amazing thing] because I had to.’ We say, ‘No, what you did was amazing. It wasn’t just that particular set of circumstances. You can take the skills and the courage that you exhibited in that moment and use it for your other dreams, too.'”

As Hucks recalls, “Mostly, [the retreat] made me believe in myself and that I can do what I want in my life.” She suspects she would have made her dreams come true eventually, but perhaps not as quickly or as easily without having attended the weekend workshop.

Woodhull Coming to San Francisco

With more than 80 alumni here, an office in San Francisco and the City’s Margot Magowan presiding over Woodhull’s board of directors, it is not surprising that the Institute is raising money to buy land out in California.

Other future plans include a think tank to promote diverse ethical leadership. Finding the national dialogue frequently one-directional and poorly reflective of diverse voices and opinions, and frustrated that women hold only 7 percent of pundit positions, Woodhull’s think tank will endeavor to put women of diverse backgrounds into media and pundit positions. These Woodhull Fellows (women who will teach workshops) include such luminaries as Ariana Huffington, Erica Jong, and San Francisco’s own District Attorney, Kamala Harris. This venture will, Magowan hopes, be based in San Francisco.

In realizing her dreams of growing the Woodhull Institute, Magowan is learning many of the skills she teaches others. She had, she says with a laugh, no idea of what she was getting into. But she did have the courage of her convictions, and the knowledge that she had a duty to fulfill. Perhaps it is because of the Institute’s own persistence, and Wolf and Magowan’s own belief in their self-worth, that they have been able to inspire so many women to have greater belief in themselves.

In addition to the weekend retreats, the institute offers advanced training sessions, retreats for older women (“Wise Women” retreats), and forums for open discussions. For more information about Woodhull or to apply for a workshop, visit